Letter To My Newborn: Growing Up Digital
To My Newborn Child-
First of all, I love you and I am so excited that you have joined us in this amazing adventure that we call life. When my father and his father before him sat down to write letters to their newborn children, they wished for a future a bit brighter and hoped that the years ahead would be illuminated by a sense of meaning and fulfillment. I am no different from my forefathers. I too wish you a bright future and want passion and meaning to fill your work, love and play.
I also want to talk to you about a subject that no father before me has broached with his child, something that may sound trivial for a letter of this kind, but I believe it will be a central theme in our lives as we move forward. I want to talk about technology and the important role it will play in our relationship and in your life.
I first met you on a screen, you were inside your mother’s womb. These brief glimpses made your time in utero look something like a life at sea. I sit here today in my office, at a computer screen, fingers moving across keys that are as familiar to me as any surface that I have ever touched. This is the world to which you have emerged. As you develop, this technology will increasingly be like the wallpaper in every room of your life. You will take for granted things that did not even exist when I was a child. You will develop ideas about these issues that will be far different from my own. Many of the struggles that we will face will be about standing at opposite sides of an inevitable generational technology divide. Where these differences arise, it is my goal to keep you safe while also striving to respect change and get out of the way when you are better equipped to lead me to a new sense of understanding.
I am excited for you to move boldly into this digital future. I want to follow close behind as you traverse friendly landscapes that will appear to me as imposing fields of thickets. I want to hear you say, “Oh I can do that!” about things that always seemed outside of my grasp. I want you to see the world as more connected and be less inhibited in your exploration. I want you to develop and represent your own unique voice by combining pixels to make pictures, movies, music and technology mediums that are yet to be invented. To be born digital is to be handed a set of extremely powerful tools and told to go play without even realizing that you are building the future.
While I push you forward, some may say a bit recklessly, I also have some concerns. There is a less promising side of emerging into a world where you are handed powerful tools and told to go create. Your digital birthright comes with great responsibility: Responsibilities that you will need to come to understand. Sometimes, I may feel the dangers are too great for me to have patience. In many ways it’s unfair. You will have access to an unlimited amount of information and be expected to know what is yours to play with and what should not be looked at or shared. Your flesh and blood world of bed times and clean up will often fail to compete with the one that will live inside your screens. Your play space will be full of adults who want what you have (innocence, buying power, seemingly unlimited time and curiosity) and you will be expected to understand their intentions. For you it is going to be all a normal part of growing up digital and together we will seek common ground.
Not surprisingly, my biggest concern is something that is a great struggle for me as well. I have known brief moments in my life where I have felt deeply connected to something much bigger than myself. It’s hard to talk about these moments and putting them into words is an awkward endeavor. I have felt them most clearly when in nature or with people that I love very deeply. It feels safe and at the same time like something completely new is happening. It usually comes when the voices in my mind have grown silent and I have let go of the worries of who I think I should be. This is a place that I have found through taking deep breaths and through rigorous exploration. I certainly found it when I first looked into your eyes.
My main concern is that always being connected to technology limits your ability to access these kinds of places. I don’t know that this is true, but from my own experience the “always checking” (email, voicemail, hits, posts, texts, etc.) makes it more difficult to find this quiet place that I am describing. It makes me very sad to think that I will allow you access to something that will stop you from finding this place. I will work hard to instill in you the value of silence and create a balance in your early life between being connected and disconnecting.
My excitement and concern is only one half of the equation. The other part is you and the course of your unique development. I thought you might like a road map as you set out on the first 10 years of your digital life.
Zero-Two: I already told you that world you entered is saturated with technology. I already told you how hard it is for me to resist. I am not alone, you may be too young to notice (and may never know anything different), but in the world around you people are distracted. You can see it in the little boxes that they hold to their ears, the screens they stare into longingly and the keyboards that they peck at with their fingers. There is still plenty of love and attention to go around. It is a matter of me remembering my priorities.
We know what the pediatricians say, no screen time at all before two, and we will try our hardest to take this seriously. It’s tough though. With a three-year old sister, you will be exposed to far more than she was at your age and probably develop a taste for the screen earlier. When it comes to long car and plane rides, all bets are off and you can expect to be hooked up to “boob-tube” as an easy distraction.
Two-Four: The other day your sister was pretending that she had a toy gun and she was shooting things in the living room. When she shot the television your mother said, “if you shoot the television you won’t be able to watch it anymore.” Your sister’s reply was quick. “That’s OK mommy. I’ll still have the computer.” Yes, the computer will become a good friend before you are out of diapers. It will become a destination, like the park or school. A place where “you go” to experience things and the places you visit will be designed to hold your attention. We will set timers and monitor you closely as the mouse becomes as familiar to you as your crayons and blocks.
Four-Six: What an imagination! You will make the leap from little kid to school-aged kid and it is your imagination that will propel you through this amazing time. In the world away from the screen, you will imagine stories as you go along and on the screen you will experience worlds that are created for your imagination. In my mind this is not a subtle distinction and I will actively encourage you to see the value in imagining away from the screen.
At this age you will most likely have your first avatar and it will interact in a virtual world with other avatars. Yikes! Yes, this idea scares me and yes this will cause me to watch you more closely. I also know that fear can cause rigidity and I will need to do my research and stay a couple of steps ahead both to provide you with safe environments and to manage my own anxiety.
Just as important as the amount of screen time will be the way we treat each other when we are in front of screens. While these are “personal computers” they are increasingly becoming a part of our family life and this means placing a high value on sharing, communicating and being generous.
Six-Eight: Believe it or not, at this age you will probably get your first cell phone. I will roll my eyes when it happens, but it will also quickly become a way for us to stay connected and will provide me (perhaps unrealistically) with a way to feel that I have ensured your safety. I will remind you that I knew a time when cell phones were only in limousines and annoy you with stories about how excited I was in high school when I got a beeper.
It will be important for us to remember that just because we can always be connected does not mean that we should. I want you to have the freedom to make decisions for yourself and navigate tough situations with the common sense that I have left in your mind and not on the device in your pocket. I’m always here for you, but there are limits and being separate is an important part of being close.
Eight-Ten: Your online presence will flourish during these days and the social world will beckon both online and offline. Hopefully it will be a world that welcomes you and makes you feel safe and confident. This world should be secluded enough that you can experience the necessary growth that is only possible in the privacy of childhood friendships. I also hope that it won’t be so secluded that it will leave you unable to call on the adults in your life when things feel like they are beyond your understanding or ability to control. I want you to see the value in being good to your friends and not use technology to exclude and make fun of those who seem different. I want you to dance with grace the difficult dance of thinking for yourself and feeling like you are a part of a group. The temptation to take short cuts where you don’t have to do the hard work of confronting people face-to-face will be at your fingertips and I hope you will see the value in “fleshing it out.” I will be there for you when these relationships hurt, but I will also try to remember that just because I have access to your every digital utterance that it is not my job to get too involved.
Starting here, the intensity of your feelings will likely be measured by the amount you record digitally. Keep in mind that the trail you leave is yours forever and try to be in the moment as much as you capture the moments.
So off we go. I look at you now so small and still so much a part of that experience that you had before your birth. You are timeless and I can imagine the countless generations before me who stared with wonder into their newborns eyes. The similarities are still there and it is important that we hold onto this vital humanness that ties us to our fathers and mothers before us. While no generation before ours has had this conversation there were other great changes and our presence is a testament to their ability to weather the storms and enjoy the ride.
In the end it is about relationships. It is about listening to the people you love and knowing that the process is most often more important than the outcome. That each generation needs to separate itself and find its own definition and that looking within is always a good place to begin.
I end where I began. Welcome to this world! I love you very much and I am honored to be able to witness and take part in your life.
Jason Brand is a family therapist with a technology background who specializes in bridging the screen divide.